A Velocity Magazine Feature Article – John Morris Velocity Motorsport Magazine Editor
In the world of motorsport, the terms ‘Grand Prix’ and ‘Formula One’ are synonymous with the very best. In 2020 the Formula One fraternity were set to commemorate a 70th anniversary for the Formula One World Championship, only to be stopped in their tracks by the Coronavirus (COVID-19) on the very eve of the Australian Grand Prix.
While talks of a potential world championship had begun in the mid 1930s, plans were ultimately shelved as war followed periods of political unrest that had broken out across Europe. It is somewhat of an irony that the 2020 celebrations had been placed in an enforced hiatus as another enemy rages war with the world.
There is, however, much more to the story of Formula One; the origin of the species, the rapid development, lost years, revolution and change. To begin, it may be surprising to find that ‘Grand Prix’, which translates to English as ‘grand prize’, originated at a French Equestrian event in 1896. When the first races for the new mechanical contraptions took place in France towards the dawn of 1900 it seemed only fitting to continue with the term.
The quest for speed and the challenge of proving who was the fastest is as old as time itself. From the challenge of the fastest athlete, came the challenge of the fastest steed. It was only a matter of time before the steed was replaced by a machine as the first automobiles made their mark.
In its infancy, motorsport ran under the auspice of The Association Internationale des Automobile Clubs Reconnus (AIACR), and continued to do so until the early 1920s. In the space of 15 years, the motoring industry and automotive technology had grown from crudely converted horse-drawn buggies to purpose built chassis with multi cylinder engines of increasing complexity. The interest in motorsport had also escalated exponentially, with events held across the globe. In any town of two or more automobiles, there was bound to be a race of some kind. The AIACR created regulations for racing categories that encompassed all forms of motorsport; from small events for local enthusiasts, to the cutting edge technology from factory teams in the Grand Prix formula that used racing to showcase their high end product to a rampant market.
The harsh realities of the first World War did little to dampen the long term growth of motor racing. Many manufacturers and teams that had been at the forefront prior to 1914 transferred their expertise to the weapons of war and, in particular, the ascendancy in the sky. Aeroplace were developed with lighter, more powerful engines and composite materials, which were soon transferred to Grand Prix racing once the armistice was signed.
The AIACR, formed by a group of gentleman enthusiasts for the purpose of enjoyment, had been outgrown by the demands of the sport. The Commission Sportive Internationale (CSI) was formed as a sub-entity to the AIACR in 1922, to manage the day to day operation of racing, and the burgeoning Grand Prix formula.
Designs also began to investigate basic principles of aerodynamics with Bugatti and Mercedes amongst those to dabble with designs that replicated aircraft wings. Mercedes even trialled a mid engine prototype in 1923 which finished fourth in the Italian Grand Prix and the recently opened Monza Autodrome.
Grand Prix racing blossomed over the next 14 years as an increasing level of patriotism followed manufacturer success. Victory for Maserati, Alfa Romeo, Bugatti, Delage, Mercedes or Auto Union were celebrated as symbols of engineering superiority almost to the point of fanaticism. When Tazio Nuvolari won the 1935 German Grand Prix in a Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Romeo P3 Tipo B, the Third Reich were incensed. Such was the certainty of a German victory, organisers had failed to bring a recording of the Italian National anthem for the victory celebration. Nuvolari added insult to injury by providing his own copy and insisted that it be played. German marques had generally dominated the European Championship from 1935 and the continued to do so through to 1939, just prior to the Second World War.
The AIACR was changed to The Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) in 1946 as Grand Prix events returned throughout Europe. The CSI continued to define eligibility criteria and created two premier categories; Formula 1 and Formula 2. It took another four years to galvanise Formula One rules within the structure of a World Driver’s Championship.
From 1950 the CSI was responsible for the setting of regulations and schedule for the Formula One World Championship, while organisers of each Grand Prix events accepted entries, ran the event and paid out prize money. The inaugural Formula One World Championship consisted of just 7 of the 25 Grand Prix races sanctioned for the year. With a such a variety of events throughout Europe and the Americas, competitors could either to elect to race for the championship or run in events that offered the best prize money. When the CSI altered the eligibility to Formula 2 specification cars in 1952, Alfa Romeo withdrew, which and cast serious doubts over the future of the World Championship. A move to 2.5 litre supercharged engines in 1954 revived the category as Vanwall, Lancia and Mercedes entered cars alongside Ferrari and Maserati in the championship.
In many ways the year was a defining moment in the history of Formula One as the presence of Mercedes provided some stability, raised the profile of the championship and reignited memories of the pre-war Golden Years for Grand Prix Racing. Mercedes’ withdrawal from motorsport after the LeMans tragedy in1955 created a hole that was soon filled by smaller specialist teams with a different approach to racing, such as Vanwall, Cooper, BRM and Lotus.
Three Formula One team owners; John Cooper (Cooper), Colin Chapman (Lotus) and Bernie Ecclestone (Brabham) revolutionised motorsport, with innovations that changed the very foundations of single seater design and category management. Their ideas still form the basics of today’s Formula One.
Cooper pioneered the design of the rear engined Formula One car. While others had tried before with limited success, the Cooper Climax was a revelation and soon sounded the death knell for the previously dominant front engined machines. Sir Jack Brabham won the 1959 and 1960 World Championships in the Cooper and took the relatively underpowered Climax to 9th outright at the 1961 Indianapolis 500.
Colin Chapman provided the impetus for modern chassis design and heralded the use of complex aerodynamic structures. In 1962 Chapman introduced the monocoque chassis, which was both lighter and more rigid than the conventional space frame design. The Lotus 25 made its debut in 1962 and was immediately competitive. By 1963 the car had been fully sorted and Clark claimed his first World Championship in the Lotus.
In 1967 the Ford Cosworth DFV set the new benchmark for F1 engines. The power unit made its F1 debut in the Lotus 49. The project had been another of Chapman’s ideas and he approached Keith Duckworth to develop the design. Chapman managed to secure financial support from Ford and produced the most successful engine in the history of Formula One. The DFV engine powered 12 drivers to World Championships between 1968 and 1982.
As Formula One began to delve into the new world of aerodynamic aids, Chapman was once again at the forefront. Not convinced that small winglets on either side of the front nose were particularly effective he demanded higher and wider wings be fitted to the front and rear of the team’s Lotus 49s. The move led to a rush of copies throughout the grid, only to see them outlawed within a year after a series of wing failures, highlighted by crashes for both Lotus entries at the 1969 Spanish Grand Prix. Undeterred Chapman continued to investigate ways of producing more grip through downforce and brought out the ground breaking wedge shaped Lotus 72 in 1970. His continued work on airflow shifted to the plane underneath the car and led to the installation of sub floor venturis and road hugging side skirts on the ground effects Lotus 79. The car dominated the 1978 Formula One season as driver took the championship by a substantial margin.
Chapman was also a canny businessman. In addition to the factory Lotus team, Chapman gained a substantial income from the sale of customer cars to a number of privateer entries across the different formulas. Chapman was astutely aware of the increasing public interest Grand Prix racing and the growing television market. He saw a great potential to gain additional income from sponsor advertising on the Lotus cars. While small logos for tyre manufacturers and fuel suppliers had begun to appear on Formula One cars from 1967, it was Chapman who took it to a new level.
Team Lotus unveiled their pair of Lotus 49s for the 1968 season in the striking red, white and Gold of the Gold Leaf Cigarette label. It was a move that enraged the sports traditionalists. Formula One cars had raced in colours that were representative of their country of origin, such as British Racing green, Ferrari red or French blue. Drivers had relied upon personal wealth or support from generous benefactors to fund a racing campaign. The change was seen by the establishment as a blatant commercialism which had turned the Team Lotus entries into a pair of mobile billboards. Other teams soon followed though, with varying degrees of advertising on the sides of their cars and the business of Formula One had begun.
The shift from Gold Leaf to the black and gold John Player Special (JPS) became an iconic example of a product link. Some 25 years after the sponsorship disappeared from Formula One, the term JPS Lotus was still recognised as a composite brand in world markets. Marlboro is another brand to have become synonymous with Formula One and McLaren Racing. (The Business of Winning, Strategic Success From The Formula One Track To The Boardroom – Mark Gallagher 2014)
While Cooper and Chapman’s legacies had been in the areas of chassis design and sponsorship, it was Bernie Ecclestone who revolutionised Formula One as a commercial proposition.
Ecclestone had dabbled in motorsport with a brief foray as a Formula One driver in the late 1950s, after a number of lucrative ventures in motorcycle spare parts sales, real estate investments and management of a car auction firm. He later became the business manager for Grand Prix drivers; Stuart Lewis-Evans and Jochen Rindt before moving into team ownership in 1972 with the Brabham Formula One team. Ecclestone led a group of team owners in the formation of the Formula One Constructor’s Association (FOCA) in 1974.
Through his association with FOCA, Ecclestone sought to have aspects of the sport, such as event negotiation and prize money controlled by the teams instead of the FIA and the individual event organisers. When Ecclestone became FOCA’s president in 1978 and sought to sell Formula One as a package to race promoters in exchange for trackside advertising rights, the move generated millions of dollars or revenue each year for FOCA, the teams and Ecclestone personally. The actions left senior management of the FIA incensed.
FIA President, Prince Metternich appointed Jean-Marie Balestre to lead the CSI that same year. His first action was to reform the commission into an autonomous organisation, Fédération Internationale du Sport Automobile (FISA). The two entities were at loggerheads from the start as Balestre fought to claw back the control of Formula One from Ecclestone and FOCA. Threats, disqualification and race boycotts threatened to destroy the sport that had become a multi million dollar business.
A truce of sought was reached in 1981 with the signing of the first Concorde agreement, which effectively split the control of Formula One. The FIA and FISA maintained control of the technical regulations for Formula One, while FOCA acquired the commercial rights. Ecclestone then established Formula One Promotions and Administration (FOPA) to negotiate television contracts for each Grand Prix. Teams received almost 50% of the revenue generated, while the FIA earned 30% with the remainder used by FOPA to award prize money for the championship season.
Formula One, under Ecclestone’s influence moved from the era of the gentleman racer and amateur competition into an international business. Incomes and costs escalated as teams looked for more victories and the substantial rewards that followed. The days of the small specialist manufacturers and privateer teams were well and truly gone and the Formula One as we know it today had arrived.
Bernie Ecclestone was succeeded by Chase Carey as the head of the Formula One Empire in January 2017. Ecclestone exclaimed to Germany’s Auto Motor und Sport that “I was dismissed. This is official. I no longer run the company. My position has been taken by Chase Carey.”
Ecclestone went on to say, “I’m proud of the business that I built over the past 40 years and all that I have achieved with Formula 1. I would like to thank all of the promoters, teams, sponsors and television companies that I have worked with.*
“I’m very pleased that the business has been acquired by Liberty and that it intends to invest in the future of F1. I am sure that Chase will execute his role in a way that will benefit the sport.”
Chase Carey commented on his appointment to the role, ”I am excited to be taking on the additional role of CEO. F1 has huge potential with multiple untapped opportunities. I have enjoyed hearing from the fans, teams, [governing body] FIA, promoters and sponsors on their ideas and hopes for the sport.
“I would like to recognise and thank Bernie for his leadership over the decades. The sport is what it is today because of him and the talented team of executives he has led, and he will always be part of the F1 family.*
*(Bernie Ecclestone removed as Liberty Media complete $8bn takeover – Andrew Benson BBC Sport 23 January 2017)
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